1952 – 1953 Membership Plaque, from the Collection of Mike Goyda – 2005 photo
WHEN SMOKERS RULED by Mike Griffith
They came together in a time of turmoil, left to serve their country and returned with one thing on their minds – hot rods.
Considered outlaws by many, the teenagers who grew up racing on the streets of Bakersfield in the early 1940’s were the pioneers of drag racing.
Their numbers, never large, are dwindling and The List – a document with the names of deceased club members is a tribute to theoir past as well as a reminder that no one is immortal.
But were it not for their love of cars, speed, and adventure, the rich history and tradition of the most famous independent drag race in the nation – The Bakersfield March Meet – continues to thrive.
Now a nostalgia race featuring 1972 and earlier vehicles, including the popular front-motored slingshot dragsters, the March Meet in its current form is as much a happening now as it was when the Smokers decided to hold an East- vs. -West race back in 1959 that became an instant success.
This is their story.
BOYS AND THEIR CARS
“Ernie (Hashim) and I had cars…he went to East Bakersfield (High School) and I went Bakersfield (High School) and (racing) was just kind of a challenge,” said Jack Delaney, 77, one of the original Smokers. “Drag racing was really something. All of the kids really enjoyed it, but they didn’t all have cars. I tell you, you’d hear about a drag race and everyone flocked to go.” Oftentimes the high schoolers wouldn’t even wait until the weekend or for that matter , the school day to end, before racing.
“We used to go on lunch hours and drag up and down behind Mercy Hospital on 16th Street,” Delaney recalled. “You’d race anything you had. You’d just line up, somebody’d come along side you and away you’s go.”
World War II was in progress at the time and some future Smokers wound up in the military after high school. Once back in Bakersfield, hot rodding picked up even more steam.
“I always had a real nice car and raced with everybody else on the street,” said Kenny Loewen, 75. “There was nothing else you could do. We didn’t have anywhere else to race”.
SEARCHING FOR MORE SPEED
While street racing gave the gearheads an opportunity to see what their creations could do, real speed could only be found in the dry lakes of the desert, which became a lure to the close, but yet organized, group of Bakersfield racers.
“About four of us had cars and we’d run the dry lakes, but in order to run at the dry lakes and establish a record, you to belong to a club that was a member of the Southern California Timing Association,” Hashim said. “So we started the Bakersfield Coupe and Roadster Club.”
Hut Watkins, 76, was among those who ventured to the dry lakes.
I just came home from the service and started building hot rods,” he said. “I had a ’29 coupe and a ’32 flathead Ford. We formed the club in about 1947 in order to run the dry lakes”.
While dry lake racing could be fun, it was frustrating to many.
“You’d work all month to get ready for a dry lake race, then go over there and you never had what you needed (if problems arose),” Delaney said. “we made everything at home. You’d have an idea, try it, and if it worked, everybody would try it”.
Delaney and crew.
CHANGING DIRECTIONS AND NAMES
By the late 1940’s, drag racing was starting to take root in Southern California. “Santa Ana had a drag strip and we’d go down there and race and see how they did things,” Delaney said.
In 1948, the Bakersfield Coupe and Roadster Club became Smokers, Incorporated.
“The name came about because we needed to incorporate”, Watkins said. “We came up with Smokers, Inc., because of the smoke that came off the tires (under acceleration)”.
It wasn’t long before the Smokers decided they needed to find somewhere close to Bakersfield to hold drags.
“I didn’t do the dry lakes racing, but they new I had cars, so they called me and we all met at a bar called the Bomb Shelter over on Union (Avenue)”, Loewen said. “That was in 1951 and we decided to have a drag race”.
The Kern County Land Company owned property on Maricopa Highway five miles west of Highway 99 that had an abandoned air strip on it, which was deemed the ideal location for a drag strip.
Convincing those in power that a drag strip was good idea wasn’t easy to sell. “we were a bunch of hot rodders,” Loewen said. “We didn’t get too good of publicity.”
Outlaws, so to speak.
“We were two degrees above some of the motorcycle groups”, Watkins said. “A lot of people looked down on us. We didn’t wear black leather jackets but we did have car club jackets with our names on them.”
Jack Hatzman’s jacket, photo: Beth Crossley
But the members did have enough friends in the right places, including Manuel Carnakis, a boat racer who went on to become mayor of Bakersfield from 1953-57, and the Smokers were able to secure the abandoned strip of asphalt.
The first race was held in September of 1951 and drag racing had a foothold on Kern County.
“We put on one big race there and the place was just flooded with people,” Hashim said. “It was scary. There were so many people the Highway Patrol had to come out and direct traffic.”
That was a hint of what was to come, but not at the Maricopa strip.
“The farmers went to the Board of Supervisors and said they needed the land to plow and plant crops,” Hashim said.
By 1953, the club was looking for another home base for a drag strip.
THE BIRTH OF A LEGEND
In 1954 the Smokers struck a deal with Cecil Meadows, then the Kern County Director of Airports, to lease a huge expanse of asphalt just off the Famoso-Woody road between highway 65 and 99. The area had been a auxiliary airfield to Shafter’s Minter Field during WWII, and only the eastern portion of the facility was being used as an airstrip at that time.
The Smokers had numerous drag races from 1954 through 1958 and even made a little money at it. Enough that the club decided to pay a guy back in Florida by the name of Don Garlits to come out West.
“We had the best cars in California and we had some pretty good shows,” said Loewen, who served as starter when not behind the wheel of his altered roadster. “We kept reading about this guy in Florida breaking all these records and stuff and we didn’t believe it. We had a few bucks – we were a non-profit and had some money in the bank, so we paid him to come out and race against us.”
AN UNFORGETTABLE EVENT
None of the Smokers knew what to expect when the first day of March 1959 rolled around, but never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined what came about.
Hundreds of competitors and thousands of fans descended upon Famoso Drag Strip.
“We didn’t really advertise, just a bit in the drag publications,” Watkins said. “It was all word of mouth and it looked like half of LA was there. People were backed up to highway 65 and 99. It was a mess.”
Said Delaney, “We never dreamed of having that big a crowd. There were cars stacked up everywhere. People walked up and down that road, cutting through fields and jumping over fences. There were so many people it was unreal.”
The overwhelming crowd had the Smokers scrambling to try and maintain a sense of control.
“We went out there and it was the damnedest thing you ever saw,” Loewen said. “We had to herd everybody off and get them in line to pay to get in. Of course we had a lot of help with people atking money.”
“People were running up and down the fence collecting money and not all of them were collectors, but it was probably a good idea,” Watkins said.
Still, the right people collected enough money that it had to be put somewhere for safe keeping.
“We didn’t have anywhere to put it,” Delaney said of the cash. “Everybody had money coming out of their pockets.”
Naturally, members found of a car club found a solution in a car.
“We tossed the money in the trunk of ’39 Chevrolet coupe,” Watkins said. “That became our bank vault.”
As for the racing, ropes were used to try to keep the crowd a safe distance from the competitiors and most of the Smokers had cars they found time to run despite having to fill numerous other roles.
Loewen had a unique job, working as the starter, which meant waving a flag since the club did not have an electronic starting device at the time.
“Guys would work on the car and then bring it up to me to drive,” he said. “I wasn’t worth a (heck) as a mechanic. Hut, Ernie, Tony Waters…they’re all master mechanics.”
Ernie Hashim, Photo from The Bob Elias Kern County Sports Hall of Fame (http://kcsportshalloffame.org/)
Waters had the best day of the locals at the first March Meet, driving his A/Modified Roadster to the Top Eliminator finals where he lost to Art Chrisman’s sleek dargster.
“Back in those days I was in the finals a lot,” said Waters. “The roadster was pretty fast for those days”.
And what about Garlits?
“He came with that old dragster with eight carburetors on it and the California cars blew him off in about the second round,” Loewen said. “Hashim took him aside, told him he better put a blower on that thing. He put a blower on it, went to Lodi the following week and won. The rest is history.”
While the first March Meet was a success in many ways, it did leave the Smokers with a bit of a black eye.
“We had so many people, we couldn’t control the crowds,” Loewen said. “I bet we had 30,000 people and no bleachers and no fences.”
The Smokers were able to able to handle the problems inside the track. It was the trouble outside the track that resulted in negative publicity.
“It was cold that weekend and people were tearing down fence posts and burning them and running around all the farmland and tearing stuff up,” Loewen said.
That got notice when in The Bakersfield Californian, as then city editor Eddie Griffith wrote an article on the hooliganism.
“He really blasted us, but he didn’t know us,” Loewen said.
That was rectified with a meeting where Loewen explained who the Smokers were, what they were trying to do and how they were totally unprepared for the onslaught of people for that event.
“He listened to us, checked things out and we ended up becoming real good friends,” Loewne said. “He really helped us after that.”
That first race was so spectacular it became the talk of of the drag racing world.
There was no doubt the event would become an annual affair, and every March the top names in drag racing – Garlits, Don Prudhome, Tom McEwen, Art Malone, Bobby Langley, Mickey Thompson, Danny Ongias, Connie Kalitta and a host of others – rolled through the gates at the little country drag strip to compete in 64-car eliminator fields.
Although the National Hot Rod Association was becoming firmly established, Bakersfield remained the mecca for Top Fuel dragster racing.
“I remember Art Malone drove for Garlits and won top eliminator in 1963,” Loewen said. “I was standing there, a big crowd was around him, they were taking pictures and he said ‘I feel like I just won the Indianapolis 500.’”
DEMISE OF THE CLUB
While the race was successful, the Smokers were having internal problems. Never a large group by design, the Smokers had their self-imposed limit of 30 members in March of 1964.
The following year, the club had disbanded and the name, Smokers, Inc., and the right to the race, sold to a Detroit promoter by the name of Gil Kohn.
“Whoever was doing our bookkeeping or taxes had really fouled up and the government getting ready to clamp down on us.” Loewen said. “A lot of guys owned their own businesses and were worried. We were going to keep the strip and make it a for-profit organization, but we ended up selling it.”
The race was just too much to handle for a group of guys whose main interest was racing cars.
“It was quite an adventure, but we didn’t know what we were doing,” Watkins said. “We were all 8-5 workers and it got to be a business. We didn’t have the trust or the maturity to get a good manager and it just got out of hand. It used to be fun, but it just got so big we really didn’t know what was happening. A lot of people felt bad that we sold out, but we just weren’t prepared for the success.”
Although the Smokers were no longer associated with the March Meet as a club, the meet continued to thrive, even after Kohn milked it for what he could then pulled up stakes and headed out of the state.
Hashim and Milton Weller took over the operation in 1967 and Jack Williams and Marvin Miller took control in the early 1970’s. Williams sold out to Miller by the mid-1970’s and the Miller family ran it until the final March Meet in its original form was held in 1988. By then the high cost of competition, bad weather, and the NHRA circuit and its lucrative points system had left the once-proud independent drag race a shell of its former self…
Author: Mike Griffith, Californian staff writer 3-9-2003 | Copyright, 2003, The Bakersfield Californian | Record Number 420043955
THE ORIGINAL SMOKERS
Here is a draft of what we currently have as the ORIGINAL SMOKERS.
If there are errors or omissions please let us know so that we can retain this information as accurately as possible.
The LEGENDS include:
- Glen Ball
- Jim Bower
- Niel Brandon
- Delbert Briscoe
- Clark Cagle
- Al Caldwell
- Chuck Craig
- Tom Croesen
- Bill Crossley
- Leonard Davis
- Jack Delaney
- Al Delgado
- Frank DelPopa
- Dodie Dodenhoff
- Bud Dovichi
- Chuck Edwards
- Bob George
- John Gilbert
- Richard Gill
- Don Goodwin
- Irv Guinn
- Gary Guinn
- Harold Hahn
- Sam Hambroff
- Ernie Hashim
- Jack Hatzman
- Mel Hicks
- Bob Hylton
- Howard Hylton
- Kenny Loewen
- Rudy Loftin
- Bernie Mather
- Bill McCabe
- Don Monan
- Carl Potter
- Leon Raper
- Sam Restituto
- Dick Rodman
- Bill Scott
- Spud Simkins
- Buck Smith
- Gordon Spaw
- George Spears
- Earl Stiles
- Jim Sughrue
- Ernie Sweet
- Jerry Sweet
- Don Swan
- Dale Somers
- Bob Trubey
- Hut Watkins
- Tony Waters
- Kenny Wedding
- Jewell Witten
- Mickey Wiggins
- Jack Williams
More information can be found here: “Bare Bones” History of the March Meet by Jim Davis
and here: Famoso Raceway History